Jim Young: wants to give CHAT a second chance admits they cannot escape a degree of criticism.

opinionred 100x100By Jim Young

May 15th, 2019



In recent Gazette pieces on Citizen Action Labs and Engagement many valid points have been raised, some with which I agree, others on which I differ and offer my experience.

There are two different types of groups advocating for the citizens of Burlington. City appointed Citizen Advisory Committees and Independent Groups who advocate on issues of particular interest to them. Both types can, and have, enjoyed varying degrees of success in their advocacy and engagement with the city.

Some thoughts on why some of them work and some don’t may help start a conversation on Citizen Engagement and the future of City Advisory Committees.

ECoB debate at Baptist on New

ECoB filled church halls – raised thousands of dollars – they were as grass roots as it gets.

The difference in influence between Citizen Advisories may simply be this: Citizen Advisory Committees where there is a directly associated department exert less influence on council. Those Committees where there is no associated department, often exert more influence.

Sparsely attended Transit Advisory meeting - staff talent shows up - members appeared to have missed the bus.

Transit Advisory meeting – staff talent shows up – members appeared to have missed the bus.

Burlington Seniors Advisory is successful because there is no “Department of Seniors”. This absence of departmental influence allows them to pursue seniors’ issues across multiple departments like Transit and Adult Programming. Without departmental affiliation, they are also free to work with Non-City groups like BfAST on issues like Free Seniors Transit. Most importantly, BSAC gets to make its cases directly to council or other city departments without any overshadowing staff influence.

Burlington Cycling Advisory (BCAC) has similar freedom from “Departmental Influence” and given the popularity of cycling with citizens, staff and council, they take full advantage of that.

Two non-city advocacy groups which have had remarkable success, for different reasons, are BfAST (Burlington for Affordable Sustainable Transit) and ECoB (Engaged Citizens of Burlington).

Sue Connor with Jim Young

Jim Young taking part in a Bfast panel discussion with Director of Transit Sue Connor

BfAST are mostly ex-members of the old Transit Advisory, frustrated by years of anti-transit positions of former councils and staffs. Their success rests in not having to advise City Council. Free from staff control BfAST brings together advocacy from city and non-city groups and departments as diverse as Burlington Transit, BSAC, ECoB, BSC Inc. and many more in a way that City Advisory rules can prevent. With a new Transit Director and a new outlook on council, a rapport has developed with BfAST which may provide a model for what advocacy and engagement might look like.

ECOB logo

Engaged Citizens of Burlington came out of nowhere and energized the citizens of the city through the election debates they organized in every ward – packed audiences in most cases – and incumbents who failed to show.

ECoB started as a protest against downtown over-intensification. Castigated by council and censured by planning and communications staff, it grew to become a massive voice for engagement and change. In the October election, ECoB’s organisation of mayoral and candidate debates changed the make-up of council and has given us a council who seem to genuinely want to engage.

Unfortunately, not all citizen advisories work. The old Transit Advisory failed because of a council and Transit Department that did not want advice from transit users or citizens, and the restrictive procedural rules imposed by committee clerks. In an attempt to recover, council created ITAC the city’s Integrated Transit and Transportation Advisory, a committee overweight with staff from Roads, Transit, Transportation and Parking and that same clerical forbearance that spoiled its predecessor.

ITAC were the torch bearers at council for the failed Cycling Lanes on New Street and who advised council to reject Free Transit for Seniors. Surely that says all that needs to be said about committees which don’t work.

Linda McKay with Mayor and Searles

Jim Searle, at one time the chair of the CHAT team poses with the then Mayor Rick Goldring. Some Advisory groups get too close to the elected officials and not close enough to the people they are supposed to represent.

I would like to finish on a positive note but CHAT (Charter Action Team), the committee responsible for Burlington’s engagement charter cannot escape a degree of criticism. CHAT was formed in 2014 under the auspices of Burlington Corporate Communications Department to implement engagement ideas from the 2011 Shape Burlington Report.

Any engagement undertaking, eight years in the making and only now reaching out for “Citizen Action” can hardly be considered a resounding success.

However, given the renewed attitude on council, I am more optimistic and hopeful that under their direction, CHAT will be more amenable to real engagement than the past suggests. If we could be sure of more council direction than staff on this new initiative, I would be even more hopeful. Let us get engaged with Citizen Action Labs and give CHAT one more try.

Related content:

City announces Civic Action labs

Jim Young doesn’t like the look of what he sees

Gazette opines on where it think the problem can be found.


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2 comments to Jim Young: wants to give CHAT a second chance admits they cannot escape a degree of criticism.

  • Penny Hersh

    I sat on the Mayor’s Seniors Advisory Committee many years ago and left after 2 years as it became evident that it was a “make work project” for seniors. At the time when Cam Jackson was mayor the committee had no budget and absolutely no input in any decisions. We became the extended arm for senior events that Mayor Jackson put on. The Committee was renamed the Burlington Seniors Advisory Committee when Rick Goldring was elected as mayor.

    As the Burlington Seniors Advisory Committee we decided to put on a senior forum at the Burlington Seniors Centre and ran into huge problems because we spent money that we essentially didn’t have. When Paul Sharman became the Council liaison for the Committee we were floundering, had no focus and the Committee stopped meeting monthly.

    When Jim Young became involved and Marianne Meed Ward became the Council Liaison the committee became more focused, did some very good work on transit and providing free transit for seniors only to be shot down at Council. My impression was that when the committee met with staff they were told what was being planned. When changes were made at the Burlington Seniors Centre regarding programming or registration no input was asked for it was presented as a report to the committee.

    My personal feeling is that as long as these Committees are at arms length to the City nothing will change. As long as applicants for these committees are interviewed with a Council Representative having a say in who is able to sit on these committees these are not true resident committees.

    I was astonished when I found out that Council had to approve the residents who are nominated for Burlington Best Awards. This was done “in camera”.

    Totally independent committees that meet and consult with a Council Liaison when necessary would be a true example of resident engagement.

    Until staff and council are prepared to loosen their grip on these committees I can’t see anything changing.

  • steven craig Gardner

    I think to say ECoB by hosting debates changed the make up of council is a bit of a stretch. Nice that they organized debates. I don’t think all those who voted fro the winners or even a majority attended debates. People of burlington voted for chnage as did the voters of Ontario and Alberta. Not always voting for something rather voting against something. That i believe is what happened in Burlington. Some of the races tighter than others % turn out disappointing , but in my neighborhood (north Burlington) ECoB still regarded as the folks against tall buildings down town and nothing more sorry.